When I saw the trailers for Speed Racer first come out, I had mixed feelings about the movie. I thought the movie had promise, but I was unsure as to whether other people would think the same.
Perhaps being a fan of anime, I’m not automatically turned off by cartoonyish (is that a word?) movies (though I guess I wasn’t before I started watching anime, which is perhaps why it eventually appealed to me). However, movies which are shot in unusual or cartoon-like styles tend to not do well at the box office.
The three examples that come to my mind first are Starship Troopers, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Starship Troopers was released in November 1997. Similarly to Speed Racer, Starship Troopers opened with only $22.1 million (about $28.9 million when adjusted for inflation). It started #1, but mostly because November isn’t exactly the biggest month for movies. In any case, it ended with $54.8 million ($71.8 million) domestically at the end of it’s run, finishing 35th for the year. Not terrible, but not necessarily near the $105 million ($137.5 million) it cost to make it.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opened July 2003, so it’s situation is quite similar to Speed Racer‘s. It opened at #2 with only $23.1 million ($26.5 million today) and went on to make $66.5 million domestically ($76.2 million), putting it 44th for the year, again short of the $78 million ($89.5 million) that it cost to make it.
Sky Captain opened September 2004 at #1, but grossed only $15.6 million ($17.5 million today). It went on to make only $37.8 million domestically ($42.5 million), finishing 77th for the year and again, no where near the $70 million ($79 million) it cost to make.
There are some exceptions, of course. 300 would probably be the most recent, but the Tim Burton Batman movies are also included – though even those started going out of favor when they got too weird for people.
One of the lessons one might be able to bring from this is that audiences typically don’t like live-action movies that are cartoon-like, unless they shamelessly pander to their targeted audience (300) or are very well known before hand (Batman). Unfortunately for shows based on anime, none of them are going to draw in audiences by the popularity of it’s source material alone, and I’m not sure exactly how well you can pander to an audience while at the same time sticking to the source material very well (unless the source material itself does nothing but pander).
This seemingly gets us to the conclusion that if you want a movie that 1) actually has a story, and 2) whose source material isn’t already widely followed, then doing a movie in a cartoon-like style isn’t a good idea.
Perhaps related to their poor box-office performance, many of these movies seem to sacrifice story for the gimmick of looking the way they do, but I’m not sure that fully explains why they would get an atrocious opening weekend.
This (finally) leads me to what I’m trying to get at here: when adapting graphic novels, comic books, or anime into live-action, there seems to be a strong urge to adapt the cartoon into a movie instead of adapting the story into a movie.
One reason why I think the new Batman movies, Spiderman, Superman, and X-Men have largely been successful is that they adapted the story and not the comic. Yes, they all have cool special effects, but do you think X-Men would have been as well received as it was if Wolverine actually showed up on screen in his yellow and blue spandex? Probably not. Hardcore X-men fans may cry heresy for that not happening, but the people who made that movie knew that it was more important to turn it into a movie instead of into a live-action comic strip.
The same thing applies to adapting anime. When doing so, one needs to adapt the story into a movie, not adapt the cartoon into a live-action cartoon. That is the mistake the Wachowski brothers made with Speed Racer and what I fear Dragonball will make the same mistake doing (and indeed, what most people who make cartoon-to-movie adaptations have done).
I have more faith in James Cameron’s Battle Angel (whenever he starts it) and Dreamworks’ plans to do Ghost in the Shell, since I think the people behind those movies generally know what works and what doesn’t, but that’s assuming studios don’t axe the trend to adapt anime or manga into movies by then based on directors seemingly not learning from mistakes of the past.
Part of the trick is choosing an anime or manga which can be successfully translated into a movie. Right now, the trend seems to be picking the most well known series without really thinking “is this actually going to translate well?”
It would have been nice had Speed Racer started this trend off well, but it didn’t and people are already asking if movies based off anime are dead before the trend even gets off the ground.
Of course, some in the anime community wouldn’t necessarily mind that, but I’m not really in that group. I generally like watching anime for the stories, in which case it doesn’t really matter what medium it is done in, as well as it is done well.
Anime does allow for some things to go on which wouldn’t work or would look silly in live-action to be sure (which is one of the things that makes adapting it into live-action problematic), but overall I don’t think I watch anime because it’s anime necessarily.
In any case, the first wave of anime adaptations seem to be done by people who are like “this is well known! Let’s turn it into a movie!” and then appear to either be making a live-action anime movie for themselves or “for the fans” without really thinking about whether such a movie will actually have broad appeal if made that way. As I said earlier – they’re adapting the cartoon, not the story. Until people learn the lesson that you have to make a movie instead of a live-action cartoon, I think any adaptations based on anime are going to continue to fail.